Train tangle

High-speed rail funds earmarked for Central Valley

The California High-Speed Rail Authority Board of Directors is scheduled to meet Nov. 4 in Sacramento to approve criteria for selecting which of four sections of track will be built first — but the federal government appeared to predetermine that outcome Oct. 28 by awarding the project $715 million in economic stimulus funds that can only be used in the Central Valley.

A classic north-south political battle has been brewing for months as advocates for the San Francisco-to-San Jose section and those for the Anaheim-to-Los Angeles section each sought to get their project going first. But with both sections mired in political and design problems, the feds decided that only the Merced-to-Fresno or Fresno-to-Bakersfield sections could break ground quickly enough to qualify for the funds.

However, San Francisco will still see $16 million of that money, which was allocated to the current Caltrain Station at Fourth and King streets, a station that will also serve the high-speed rail project and the proposed Transbay Terminal downtown.

CHSRA board member Quentin Kopp, who helped create the project as a San Francisco-based state legislator back in the 1990s, had been engaged in a behind-the-scenes conflict with current chairman Curt Pringle, the outgoing mayor of Anaheim, whose dual roles seem to violate state conflict-of-interest rules. But Attorney General Jerry Brown has been dragging his feet on issuing an opinion in the matter while running for governor.

The southern California section is more expensive that the Bay Area one, and there are significant right-of-way issues in Los Angeles County, as well as problems with choosing a site for the station in Anaheim. By contrast, the Bay Area line would use the existing right-of-way for Caltrain, which has been pursuing electrification of its track to improve service and mesh with high-speed rail.

"This is the only section in which the right-of-way is owned by a public entity," Kopp told the Guardian, although he was careful not to state a preference to avoid improperly predetermining his vote.

But the Bay Area section is also the target of a lawsuit by the cities of Palo Alto, Atherton, Brisbane, Menlo Park, and other jurisdictions that have complained about the fast-moving trains and challenged the project's environmental impact report. There are also looming issues in San Francisco, where the impending release of this section's EIR is also raising controversial design issues.

For example, city officials have complained about plans that call for the intersection of 16th and Seventh streets and other streets along the current Caltrain corridor to be grade-separated from the rail line, essentially lowering the streets into sunken culverts. "It seems like that issue is going to come to a head at some point," Joshua Switzky, a city planner who has worked on it, told the Guardian.

CHSRA spokesperson Rachel Wall called the Central Valley earmark "a game changer. They have predetermined that it could only be used in the Central Valley." But she also said the allocation was just the beginning of the $17–$19 billion the project hopes to get in federal funding.

"That's what the private investors are looking for — is the federal government committed?" Wall said, noting that California voters stepped up last year by approving a $10 billion bond measure that will go toward the $40 billion project.

Plans call for the entire Anaheim to San Francisco project to be completed by 2020, with trains traveling at up to 220 mph and making the SF-to-L.A. trip in two hours and 40 minutes.

Kopp said he wasn't too disappointed that the feds restricted the initial funds to the Central Valley. "It wouldn't offend me if that is our ultimate decision," Kopp said. "The Central Valley loves high-speed rail."